Sestina, a poetic form

Sestina by sk2

Underneath my desk there’s a sort of hidden from the eye small bookshelf were I’ve smuggled away my writing magazines. The other day, haven’t checked them out in a long time, I took one out randomly just for the fun of it thinking I might find something new from pages I’ve browsed many times. Indeed I did!

On page 15 of the Writer’s Digest from May/June 2010, I found a poetic challenge based on a sestina. I’ve never heard of this type of poetic form. That only meant one thing, Research! Love doing research, is like an adventure for the mind.

So on to the internet world I went.

A bit of history from the cyber world

The archives of the cyber world Poetry Foundation, defines the sestina as “A complex French verse form, usually unrhymed, consisting of six stanzas of six lines each and a three-line envoy. The end words of the first stanza are repeated in a different order as end words in each of the subsequent five stanzas; the closing envoy contains all six words, two per line, placed in the middle and at the end of the three lines. The patterns of word repetition are as follows, with each number representing the final word of a line, and each row of numbers representing a stanza:

1 2 3 4 5 6
6 1 5 2 4 3
3 6 4 1 2 5
5 3 2 6 1 4
4 5 1 3 6 2
2 4 6 5 3 1
(6 2) (1 4) (5 3)

At The American Scholar, the archives state it dates “back to the Middle Ages”. While the book “A History of French Versification”, page 282, indicates that “the sestina was imported into France in the sixteenth century from Italy were it had been cultivated by Dante, Petrarch, Firenzoula, Sannazaro, Tasso and other poets.” But the first French to try it was Portus de Tyrant.


On the other hand, the essay Sestina making reference to “The Making of a Poem”, states “the inventor of the sestina, Arnaut Daniel, belonged to a group of twelfth-century poets–the troubadours” who appeared “in southern France in the twelfth century. Their name is most certainly extracted from the verb trobar–meaning “to invent or compose verse”. They sang–their poems.” The “difficult complex style was called the trobar clus. The sestina was part of the trobar clus.  It was the form for a master troubadour.”

Now we know, let’s read an example

Sestina by Elizabeth Bishop (taken from Poem Hunter)

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It’s time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.

My other favorite is the poem “The Painter” by Jonh Ashbery, which you can read at the Poetry Foundation.

Here’s my rendition

Taking upon the scary task has been long and arduous (a three day endeavor), but exciting. Here are my chosen words, which I got from Sestinas: browse or built your own in order not to go crazy in choosing ones:

1 forest
2 rain
3 people
4 river
5 animal
6 branch

Remember the stanza?

1 2 3 4 5 6
6 1 5 2 4 3
3 6 4 1 2 5
5 3 2 6 1 4
4 5 1 3 6 2
2 4 6 5 3 1
(6 2) (1 4) (5 3)

My Sestina: 

The animal of the forest

The air, heavy with humidity, smelled fresh in the forest.
We were engulfed by walls of green wet by morning rain.
Scattered, stood leisure pavilions for people.
Flowing elegantly and inviting was the river,
the artery that feeds life to every single plant and animal.
A bird of gray plumage sang from a distant branch.

What would I give to stay in placid state on that branch!
To explore the beating heart that is this forest
to my country. Must I become an animal
of its fauna? A leaf to be caressed by rain?
A drop of water in its major vein, the river?
Oh, but I can’t change my nature, being part of the people!

Enjoy the smell, the peace and beauty, my people!
The shadow upon you created by every single branch.
The clear refreshing liquid of the river
that calls you to bathe as an hypnotic chant of the forest.
Dance an areyto like the Taino did under the rain.
Sleep underneath the black canopy as would an animal.

It is not a keeper, the animal,
but a resident. So it comes to us, the people,
who enjoy the richness of every drop of rain,
who should become an extended branch
in the world beyond this majestic living forest,
who should bestow life, as life is bestow upon it by the river.

Do you hear the hypotonic chant of the river?
Don’t you feel the peace of the animal
of gray plumage as it sings proudly to the forest?
Close your eyes and breathe it in, my people!
Climb the trunk and stand on the branch.
Be reborn by the blessed waters of the rain.

Your selfishness watched away by the rain
have flowed down the currents of the river.
The shadow, look, now you’re part of the branch.
You’re no longer an inhuman, an animal.
Enjoy the smell, the peace and beauty, my people!
Be engulfed by the green walls of the forest.

On a distant branch wet by rain;
in a forest that lived for a river;
there was an animal, who was part of the people.

Your turn

It’s a bit daunting the task of composing a Sestina, but a challenge you should take upon. Why? For the fun of it, for the love of creating, for the love of writing… But mainly for passion. We must embark at times in untraveled waters to help our creativity grow and expand. Is an adventure where we step away from our comfort zone. Chose your six words and create a sestina. Happy writings!

Poem Complicated for #HoySeEscribe


It is anguish.
    It is hope.
        Is desire gone in a thought…

                  day dream…

The separating thin line.
      An unknown stare.
          Unread words that drown…

It is a none believer.
    A hyprocrite’s care.
          The constant avoidance.

Journey through stormy neurons.
     Clinging, wanting,
          empty handed…

It is the toxicity of a cigarette.
    Inhale, not filtered.
          Exhale, not solidified.

The next step.
      The might be.
           The paralyzing sting.

It is not to expect.
      Let go, embrace.
            Knowingly dive in!